Thursday, February 09, 2012

Summary 2012 WY 19

Summary of Decision February 9, 2012

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Summaries are prepared by Law Librarians and are not official statements of the Wyoming Supreme Court

Case Name:  Sinclair v. City of Gillette

Citation:  2012 WY 19

Docket Number: S-11-0164

Appeal from the District Court of Campbell County, The Honorable Marvin L. Tyler, Judge

Representing Appellant (Plaintiffs):  Randall T. Cox, Cox, Horning & McGrath, LLC, Gillette, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee (Defendants): Catherine M. Fox, Davis & Cannon, LLP, Cheyenne, Wyoming; Kendal R. Hoopes, Yonkee & Toner, LLP, Sheridan, Wyoming.  Argument by Ms. Fox.

Date of Decision: February 9, 2012

Facts:  Appellants own property near the City.  In the early summer of 2008, Appellants noticed survey crews setting up instruments on their property.  The surveyors were working under a contract with the City to develop an expansion of the City’s storm drain system.  Appellants objected, asserting that the City had no right to install the storm drain across their property.  Despite their protests, the surveyors continued their work.  Appellants took their complaint to the City, still maintaining that it had no easement or other legal right to locate the storm drain on their property. 

During the summer, City employees and contractors made a large excavation across Appellants’ property.  They installed a concrete storm drain, refilled the excavation and graded the lot.  Appellants continued to protest that the City had no legal right to install the storm drain across their property.  The storm drain currently remains in place.

Pursuant to the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act, specifically Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-39-113 (LexisNexis 2009), Appellants presented notice of their claim to the City.  They followed up by filing a complaint in the district court, setting forth three claims for relief.  In the first, they sought an injunction ordering the City to remove the storm drain and restore the property.  In the second, entitled “Statutory Damages,” they requested compensation pursuant to Wyoming’s Eminent Domain Act, specifically Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-26-506 – 508.3.  In the third, entitled “Alternative Damages,” Appellants claimed that, if they were not granted injunctive relief, they were entitled to an award of damages, including the loss in value of the land, punitive damages against the City’s contractor, and attorneys’ fees and litigation costs.

The City filed a motion to dismiss Appellants’ third claim. The City conceded that the appellants may be entitled to compensation pursuant to the Wyoming Eminent Domain Act, but maintained that the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act barred the third claim for relief, asserting the claim did not fit within any of the statutory exceptions. Appellants opposed the City’s motion to dismiss.

After briefing and oral argument, the district court concluded that Appellants’ third claim was not authorized under the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act, and granted the City’s motion to dismiss the claim.  In response to Appellants’ unopposed motion, the district court certified pursuant to W.R.C.P. 54(b) that this dismissal was a final judgment as to the third claim, and that there was no just reason to delay entry of final judgment on the claim.  Appellants have appealed that final judgment, and the parties agreed to stay the remainder of the case pending the result of the appeal.

Issues:  1) Whether the district court erred when it concluded that the appellants damages claims against the City are barred by the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act; and 2) Whether the application of immunity based on the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act as applied to negligence, trespass, and forcible taking of property claims which arise in the operation of public utilities and services violated the due process, equal protection, and open court protections of the United States and Wyoming Constitutions.

Holdings:  The City conceded for purposes of this appeal that it was negligent in investigating the ownership status of Appellants’ property.  The Court concluded, however, that such negligence was unrelated to the “operation” of the storm drain.  The storm drain operates and functions regardless of who owns the property.  Because negligence in determining the legal status of the property is not negligence in the operation of the storm drain, the Court found Appellants’ claim did not fit in the niche provided under the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act.  The fact that Appellants’ exclusive remedy is under the Wyoming Eminent Domain Act reinforced the Court’s conclusion that Appellants have no viable cause of action against the City under the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act.

As to the second issue, the Court found the claims asserting violations of constitutional rights to be without merit because, despite the dismissal of their claim under the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act, they still have access to the courts to pursue their claim for injunctive relief and their inverse condemnation claim under the Wyoming Eminent Domain Act.


J. Burke delivered the opinion for the court.

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